by: Thomas D. Mooney
This interview with Amanda Shires originally took place roughly a month after the release of Down Fell the Doves in late August of 2013. With Shires performing tonight (Wednesday, February 11) at The Blue Light in Lubbock, we’ve updated and are reposting the interview–which is primarily about the making of Shires’ third solo album, Down Fell the Doves.
In related Shires news, her and fellow singer-songwriter and husband Jason Isbell, have released a two-song EP titled Sea Songs. Sea Songs is a bit of a surprise–albeit a pleasant one–both in timing (it wasn’t previously announced as something to be released) and in material. The two tracks are both covers, “I Follow River” by Swedish indie songwriter Lykke Li and “Mutineer” by Warren Zevon. Find the digital EP here.
For presale tickets for Shires at Blue Light, click here. Watch/Listen to “Devastate” below.
New Slang: Down Fell the Doves, it has more rock elements throughout than your previous solo albums. I’d describe it as being more electric. Why do you think these songs tend to gravitate more towards that then your previous songs?
Amanda Shires: Well, they all start off on ukulele, guitar, or fiddle, so it always starts acoustic, but I think it went into rock n’ roll leaning when I picked Andy [LeMaster] to be my producer. A lot of the sounds we got, they’d been sounds that I’d experimented with in the past–like with Thrift Store Cowboys and some other bands–but I wasn’t able to describe what it was that I wanted to hear. Or when I was trying to get that sound, I wasn’t sure on how to do it. But when I met Andy, he has a way of understanding what you mean when you say you want certain parts dirtier or darker. He has the patience to play with things and find those specific sounds that I hear in my brain. I think a lot of that is because he has experience doing those kind of recordings.
NS: Did you learn or pick up anything from him while working together?
AS: Oh nothing [laughs]. If you’re talking about technically, I love that people are great at engineering and are technically great at tape and all the different parts that happen in studios, but that’s really not my interest. My interest is making music and art. Course, you always do learn something so I’d say that I learned it’s possible to find someone you can communicate with who understands what you’re wanting even though you’re not always using the vocabulary that goes along with it. All I know about music is the playing part. Andy was able to really decipher what I meant.
NS: Yeah. Communication is sometimes underrated. So when an artist goes from a more acoustic sound to a darker, electric, rock n’ roll sound, sometimes people feel that there’s some intimacy lost in the songs. There’s always been an intimacy in your songs. Were you ever fearful that you’d lose some of that?
AS: Not at all. I think when you’re playing with sound, if you’re first concern is songwriting and the songs, you’ll never lose it. It comes down to the songs and the lyrics. I think what’s nice is that I can do both. I can do just me and a ukulele or do it in a band setting. I guess some people like one over the other. I don’t have any power over what people prefer. I’m just doing my thing.
NS: Yeah. I always appreciate and love songwriters who are able to do the same song various ways. The versatility of some songs and artists is just incredible. You can do songs various ways and there’s not any translation lost–you’re still getting out what you should.
AS: I agree. Some people feel like things are missing for them if it doesn’t sound exactly like the record. Some people who come to multiple shows, they’re glad to hear it done different ways. To me, it opens it up for more folks to get out to a show and not watch the Netflix [laughs].
NS: Do you generally like to see a song progress over the course of time and change from how you originally thought it was going to be or do you kind of like keeping them closer to what was recorded? How open are you to that?
AS: I guess in the past, if it’s just me, there’s not much you can do. But if it’s with a band, I start with it being close to how it was recorded, but let it go from there. I think that happens naturally. A lot of times, you’ve picked tempos for the recording, but during live shows you either than to speed them up or slow them down. Once you start getting comfortable with a song–where you’ve played it a billion times–then the evolution is natural. It keeps it fresh if you’re able to do so. I jus like to see how it goes. Let it roll. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be an expression and expressions are always better when you’re letting it come naturally rather than trying to keep it to a rigid form.
NS: Yeah. I feel that, most of the time, albums should be viewed as Polaroids or blueprints of songs. If you’re going to a show expecting them to be precisely that, then why go? You could stay at home and listen to the album.
AS: Exactly. They were a moment captured.
NS: Another thing on this album, all the songs are written by you. Obviously West Cross Timbers and Carrying Lightning only had a couple of songs that were written by others–and this may be a strange question–but do you think since this is all your songs, that it’s a bit of a–
AS: A conscious decision?
NS: I guess. I was going to say maybe a bit of statement. Maybe an arrival moment or something. I don’t know, something like that.
AS: I see what you’re saying. I do like covering other people’s songs. In the past, I was already doing those songs and decided to put them on the record. I just didn’t pick them out. This time when I went to record, I wasn’t really working on any cover songs or anything. That’s how that happened. I’m not opposed to covering songs if it’s a good song. There’s so many of them out there. But no, it wasn’t any kind of statement; it just happens that way.
NS: Yeah. I guess I was thinking something along the lines of where you were comfortable and confident enough as a songwriter to know you’re a great songwriter.
AS: [Laughs]. I don’t know any songwriter who is thinks they’re a great songwriter.
NS: [Laughs]. What was the first song you guys recorded for the record?
AS: “Garden Song” was the first song we recorded.
NS: Do you feel that the first song recorded sets the tone for the rest of the album–no matter where the song ends up on the tracklist?
AS: No [laughs]. It may be true for a lot of people, but usually recording is such a different kind of setting. You’re in a place where you record something and then there it is for everyone to hear with all its’ imperfections and flaws. For myself, I generally start off with a song that I’m comfortable with and know pretty well. It helps to ease yourself back into that atmosphere. In that setting, it’s just easier for me to start with something I know well and to save the others that need work for later.
The last song I recorded, I wrote in the studio. It was “Look Like a Bird,” and that’s the first song on the record. I wrote 14 or 15 songs for this record. A few didn’t make it on there, but while in there, I wrote that “Look Like a Bird.” I was like, “Andy, I know we don’t have a lot of time left, but we have to record this song.”
NS: Was that the quickest song for you to write? I’d think that came rather quickly for you.
AS: There were a few that came quickly on the record. Then there’s obviously some pulling teeth ones. I really don’t know why that happens.
NS: Yeah. I guess if I ever figured out that answer, I’d be a millionaire.
NS: What song changed the most from what you thought it was going to be? Any drastic changes?
AS: I don’t think I’ve been asked this before. Well, I don’t think anything has changed where it wouldn’t be unrecognizable, but the “Wasted and Rollin'” song. The bridge is completely different. I rewrote that bridge completely.
NS: A lot of your songs, they’re typically covering serious subject matter. Murder ballads, love lost–things of that nature. But there’s typically a great sense of humor here and there within the song. What do you think it is about having that balance–serious subject matter with a line or two that’s in the dark humor area?
AS: I think that’s really a part of life. Things that are serious typically have something that has dark humor undertones somehow. I don’t intentionally try and do it. I think it’s really the way I handle my own set of problems. I try and make something dark a little bit lighter. I try and make whatever difficult problems happening in my life a little bit better in that way so you’re not always going down that well of emotional turmoil. My approach is that I try and write as true to whatever character I’m writing about, but to also have a little bit of interjection of myself. I’m in the Townes Van Zandt group of songwriters–you can write the blues or zippety-doo-dah. And you know, jokes just make life a little bit easier. Like did you see that Drunk History about Dolly Parton?
NS: You know, I was actually going to bring that up.
AS: I’m like Dolly Parton in that episode–“back me or back the fuck off [laughs].”
NS: [Laughs]. You often write with a lot of bird imagery. What do you think it is that keeps drawing you back to that?
AS: For first, I’m embarrassingly enough, a bird watcher. I like to watch birds. Everywhere I go, I have these awesome binoculars and this book where I write down what birds I saw. I guess I’m just fascinated with the way they can occupy two realms. They have the choice to be on land or in the air. I can’t really think of much else that has that choice. I get to see many perspectives that they see–or that I imagine they do. I’m also fascinated with how people build different characters around different birds. I like how they become symbols and start to have meaning even though they never have a say. You don’t see an owl ever saying he’s just a book of wisdom–and they’re dinosaurs. Beat that.
NS: [Laughs]. Oh yes. I’m always watching those Talk Ted episodes on Netflix. I saw one the other day where they really went into how the modern dinosaur is the chicken.
AS: Yeah. On 60 Minutes, they were talking about reverse engineering a chicken back into a dinosaur.
NS: Yeah, that’s actually what this was partly about. Anyway, I was going to ask you about “When You Need a Train It Never Comes” from Carrying Lightning. Train songs, they’re really an American tradition. It’s part of the fabric of America. Trains can mean so many things in songs, but one I’d never really thought about before was the way you used it in that song. How’d you decide to go with that perspective and take–because it’s about laying your head on the rail and committing suicide?
AS: Yeah, it’s true. The song is just what it is. It starts with a dream and I wrote it down. I was going through my notebook and came across it and thought I should expand on it. It had its’ flash to become a song. So it came from a dream.
NS: You’re also going to be on this Alabama tribute album. How’d you choose that song?
AS: Well, I’m a child that appreciates their 80s country music. I picked a song that I hadn’t really heard on the radio. I incorporated my fiddle and stuff. It was also right after George Jones had passed away so I thought I’d do my string part like “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It has that big, dramatic ascending string thing and I thought I’d put that string section, or a version of it, on this. It couldn’t have fit any better.